Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Max Roach Legacy Collection Unveiled

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


“Embellishing a style introduced by Kenny Clarke a few years earlier, Roach devised a fresh approach to playing his instrument that initially mystified and thoroughly challenged other drummers. On his first recordings with Parker, he displayed a highly responsive, contrapuntal style. The time was established on the hi-hat or top cymbals, rather than the snare and bass drums. A regular pulse, softly played on the bass drum, provided a foundation (or "bottom") for the music. This was a holdover from the old way of playing. Added to the recipe were comments on accents made on the snare and bass drums, often in close conjunction.

In essence, Roach worked with techniques out of the drums' lively tradition, some of them stemming from Jo Jones, some from Sid Catlett, more than a few from Kenny Clarke, and combined them with techniques he invented himself. His performances were highlighted by singular patterns that were used in fills and solos and also appeared in one form or another when he played a purely supportive role. He consistently showed how to effectively use space, silence and dynamics. Roach made a case for the drummer as a musician.

Because he practiced incessantly and was a player who performed around the clock, Roach developed admirable technique and coordination. He concentrated on what drummers call independence, playing different rhythms with each appendage, which created new levels of interest for the attentive listener. He began to liberate the drum set in a major way. His talent, razor-sharp mind and inventive approach to music resulted in new applications of drum rudiments and increased use and integration of the bass drum, cymbals and hi-hat.

It was no longer just a matter of announcing time and establishing a groove. Roach took things way beyond that, bringing into play his sensitivity to sound and the so-called melodic possibilities of the instrument, while venturing into previously unexplored areas of drum set technique.”
- Burt Korall, insert notes to The Complete Mercury Max Roach Plus Four Sessions [Mosaic Records MD7-201]

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles is hard at work on an extended piece about drummer Max Roach, who along with Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell and Charles Mingus, deserves to be recognized as one of the creators of Bebop and the style of music that predominated the post World War II modern Jazz movement.

While this feature is in the works, we thought we’d call your attention to the following announcement which appeared in the April 24, 2014 edition of Downbeat Magazine. and to the video tribute to Max that follows it.


© -Geoffrey Himes/Downbeat, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“At a public ceremony in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 27, 2014 the Library of Congress unveiled the Max Roach Legacy Collection, the drummer's personal papers, recordings and memorabilia, which the library had acquired from the Roach family a year earlier.

To give a sense of the roughly 100,000 items in the holdings, samples were spread across two tables. At the end of one table were several artifacts related to Roach's landmark 1961 album, We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite. The artifacts include the contract with Candid Records, the original, unused album artwork, a program from a live performance and a portion of the score written in Roach's own hand.

Roach was a collector. He saved anything that might document his career: contracts, photos, posters, programs, reel-to-reel tapes, rehearsal cassettes, videos, scores, written correspondence, address books, date books, magazines, newspaper clippings and more. The documentation filled the basement cage of his Upper West Side apartment building; it spread out to as many as three self-storage units.

One item in the Library of Congress collection that jazz historians will be particularly interested in is the unpublished manuscript for an autobiography that Roach had worked on with writer Amiri Baraka (who died Jan. 9, 2014).

"He had a strong sense of his place in history, and he wanted it documented," the drummer's oldest daughter, Maxine Roach, said at the Library of Congress. "In the last years of his life, I asked him, 'What do you want us to do with all the stuff you have in storage?' He said, 'I don't care where it goes, but I want it to stay together.'"

Maxine Roach had attended the April 2010 unveiling of the Dexter Gordon Collection at the Library of Congress with Maxine Gordon, Dexter's widow. Roach was so impressed by the experience that she convinced her stepmother and her four siblings to give the Max Roach Collection the same home.

"When we were kids, they were just boxes of junk," said Maxine's brother Daryl. "But as I got older, when I spent a summer setting up his drum kit at European festivals, I realized he was more than just my dad. And now, seeing some of the stuff in those boxes, it's like putting the pieces of a puzzle together. I can see the breadth of his associations. I can see that he wanted to be viewed not just as a musician but also in a sociopolitical-economic context. He was a holistic thinker."

The Library of Congress plans to create a searchable database of all the artifacts in the collection. If a musician, academic, journalist or blogger wants to research the Freedom Now Suite, for example, he or she can request it and the staff will know which carton contains the related materials. The staff will bring the materials to a table at the library's reading room so that the person doing research can examine them up close.

"The purpose of these archives is not to collect boxes and put them on the shelf," said Larry Appelbaum, senior music reference librarian and jazz specialist at the Library of Congress. "We want people to come and use them."”

—Geoffrey Himes”

The following video tribute to Max is set to George Coleman’s Shirley from Max Roach + 4 On The Chicago Scene [EmArcy 36132; Mosaic MD7-201]. In addition to George on tenor saxophone and Max on drums, the quintet includes Booker Little on trumpet, Eddie Baker on piano and Bob Cranshaw on bass.

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Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Randy Johnston - "Walk On"

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


In a recent Downbeat magazine “Blindfold Test,” Eric Harland, one of the current crop of terrific young drummers on today’s Jazz scene said:


“Lewis Nash? No? Kenny Washington!? [after he was given the information that the tune and the players he was being asked to identify was Magic Beans from Benny Green’s Benny's Crib on Sunnyside, 2013 with Benny on piano, Peter Washington on bass and Kenny Washington on drums].
 
“Only a few people can swing like that. When Kenny or Lewis play swing, it's a lifestyle. They live and breathe it. The trio is great. ... 4 stars.”


I can’t think of a higher compliment to pay a drummer than to say that they make the music swing.


Or as the late announcer Chuck Niles often declared when introducing his next track on his Los Angeles, CA FM Jazz radio program: “straight-ahead and swinging.”


The editorial staff at JazzProfiles takes great joy in finding music by the current crop of Jazz musicians that’s played in a straight-ahead and swinging manner.


In this regard, Benny Green and Kenny Washington were responsible for my discovery of guitarist Randy Johnson as they along with bassist Ray Drummond formed the rhythm section on Randy’s Walk On Muse CD [MCD-5432].


I didn’t know who Randy was but since Benny and Kenny were on the date, I thought I’d take a punt on this recording.


I’m sure glad I did as Randy’s blues-drenched, straight-ahead and swinging guitar style has since become a staple of my Jazz guitarist playlists.


Here’s more background on Randy and Walk On from the CD’s insert notes as authored by Bob Porter of WBGO Jazz Radio.


“Randy Johnston was working in Harlem at Small's Paradise with singer Delia Griffin when Etta Jones heard him for the first time. While her accompaniment has rarely included guitar (except on records), Etta Jones knows a good musician when she hears one. Within a few months, she and her partner, Houston Person, began dropping Randy's name among those on the lookout for new talent. Randy quickly began showing up on Etta's recordings -then Houston's.


Walk On is his first album as a leader. His accompanists are among New York's finest. Kenny Washington was the first player who came to Randy's mind. The versatile young percussionist is a favorite of almost everyone. Kenny, born in Brooklyn (5/29/58), has been a regular member of working groups led by Betty Carter, Kenny Burrell, Tommy Flanagan and, at this writing, Milt Jackson. Randy felt that Washington would be able to handle-with-ease the range of material for this first recording. One quick listen will tell you that the drum chair is in good hands.


Bill Easley plays a whole variety of reed instruments and has been active in Broadway show bands as well as studio work around New York. Originally from upstate New York he has worked out of Pittsburgh and Memphis prior to settling in the New York area. His long list of affiliations includes George Benson, Mercer Ellington and Jimmy McGriff. His own albums have appeared on Sunnyside and Milestone.


Benny Green seems the natural heir to what Wynton Kelly represented in the 50s and 60s. His lines are clean and cliche free and his style blends easily with much of the music being made today. While his customary working situation finds him at the head of a trio, his work with Art Blakey made certain that his abilities as a band pianist would have the best possible tutelege. He currently records for Blue Note.


Ray Drummond is a major league performer on bass and has been for many years. Raised in the San Francisco bay area he was the bassist of choice for travelling musicians coming to that part of the country prior to his move to the Apple.


The material chosen by Randy and producer Houston Person covers a lot of territory. The Jumping Blues is a Kansas City anthem long associated with the composer Jay McShann while Moanin' is the quintessential Jazz Messenger standard (one that Benny Green knows very well). Crazy She Calls Me is a feature for Randy's best ballad playing while his compositions, The Queen's Samba (a dedication to Etta Jones) and the title track, Walk On, demonstrate Randy's abilities as a writer as well as a player.


This album is being released in January 1992 at a time when much of the country will be battling chilly, winter weather. The music on this disc will certainly help to keep your soul warm at any time of year. The album title says it all. It is certainly time for thirty-five year old, ex-Detroiter Randy Johnston to take center stage and to Walk On - into the spotlight!


I’ve selected the title track to accompany the following video tribute to Randy which includes a collection of images of all of his recordings as well as some photographs of him.



Monday, April 28, 2014

Maria Schneider's Classical Jazz: No Boundaries

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.



The editorial staff at JazzProfiles delights in discovering new writings that provide additional perspectives on the music of some of its favorite artists and sharing excerpts from them with its readers.

Such is the case with the following pieces on Maria Schneider by Zachary Woolfe as published in The New York Times and the essay on Maria that follows it which was written by the Books and Arts staff of the The Economist and published it in its March 8th-14th, 2014 edition of that distinguished magazine

© -Zachary Woolfe and The New York Times, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“For a long time, big-band jazz relied on a swinging but implacable wall of brass: the sound of Count Basie, Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington. Schneider absorbed what she calls that “frontal load of decibels and power and energy,” and she has never abandoned it completely. But the music she began composing when she moved to New York in the late 1980s took on a different character.

‘I got tired of the big band being these three primary colors: the trumpets, the trombones, the saxes,’ [Maria Schneider] said. Schneider wanted the muscle and precision you get with 15 or 20 loud instruments, and she wanted the backbone of improvisation that is fundamental to jazz. But she was also drawn to the colors of the orchestra: shifting, ethereal prisms out of Ravel and Debussy. …  ‘My pieces, many of them, at least the newer things, are through-composed like classical music,’ she said. ‘They go through different sections, so the soloist has to bring the piece from here to there. It’s not ‘This is my solo, I’m going to show you everything I know about the instrument,’ which most big-band music is: kind of an ego show for each soloist. In mine they have to carry the piece and tell the story.’

In a way, Schneider has been trying to reconcile invention and rigor since childhood. Her first piano teacher happened to be a raucous stride pianist who exposed Schneider to the virtuosity of Art Tatum, along with the expected Chopin ├ętudes. Though Schneider studied classical composition at the University of Minnesota, she turned increasingly back to jazz.

After graduate work at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, she moved to New York and began working as a copyist, churning out instrumental parts from orchestral scores. It was through a copying gig that she met and started working as an assistant to Gil Evans, who was Miles Davis’s arranger of choice in the glory days of Birth of the Cool and Sketches of Spain. Evans was a revelation. He would regularly bring in instruments that weren’t part of the big-band palette — French horns, flutes, oboes — and his writing willfully stretched the abilities of his players.

‘Gil wanted me to re orchestrate one of his pieces for big band,’ Schneider recalled. ‘I was in my 20s and feeling completely out of my league. And one day I came in with what I wrote, and he was horrified. He said: “No, no, no. I want these low instruments at the top of their range so they’re uncomfortable. And these high instruments at the bottom of their range.” He wanted people playing completely at their opposite range at struggling points in the music. And then it was just, Oh, my God, that’s the stuff you can’t learn. That’s the stuff that comes from a personality searching for his own inner world.’

At night, she composed her own music for a band she started with the trombonist John Fedchock, a classmate at Eastman. (She married Fedchock too, but both the marriage and that first band dissolved after a few years.) Following the lead of Evans, she tweaked her band to include various winds. She also played with orchestration, so that a fluegelhorn might share a melody line with a trombone and a bass flute, making an alluring blend of brassy and smooth. ‘I started mixing people, mixing the colors,’ she said, ‘so when you listen to it, it might sound like a French horn — and there’s no French horn in the band.’

Back in the early 1990s, Schneider’s band played a weekly residency at a club in Greenwich Village. Every Monday for five years, she loaded all the music stands and the scores into a cab and packed them up again at the end of the night for the ride back to her one-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side. The members of the band each got $25; she would pay herself $15. “Every week it was a logistical hell,” she said. “I don’t know how I had the energy for that. You’re different when you’re younger. You just take it somehow.”

She worked for years to flesh out the orchestral elements in her style of jazz, through her debut, Evanescence (1994), a combination of brassiness and lightness; Allegresse (2000), with its Brazilian accents; and her 2004 masterpiece, Concert in the Garden, whose pieces have the sweep and drama of tone poems. But what she had not done until recently was write for an actual orchestra, with its full complement of strings and its lack of improvisation. It was not long after Concert in the Garden that she met the soprano Dawn Upshaw, who came to prominence singing Mozart at the Metropolitan Opera in the 1980s and emerged as a bold advocate for contemporary music. Upshaw had gotten in the habit of attending Schneider’s band’s annual Thanksgiving-week performances at the Jazz Standard in Manhattan.

‘It was about the third year that I was there when I thought to myself, Wow, I wonder if she would ever consider writing anything for me.’ Upshaw said. ‘I know that our worlds don’t collide typically, but what would happen if we tried to do something together?’ Schneider had never incorporated lyrics before, and Upshaw sensed she was anxious. ‘But she was game,’ she added. ‘And it’s one of the best musical experiences that I’ve ever had.’

The relaxed, seductive ‘Carlos Drummond de Andrade Stories,’ which Upshaw sang with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in 2008, was the first product of the collaboration. Three years later there was Winter Morning Walks, settings of the poetry of Ted Kooser. This was a more daring combination, with the Australian Chamber Orchestra playing the score as written, as members of her band improvised.”
- Zachary Woolfe, The New York Times, April 12, 2013
[Winter Morning Walks would go on to win three Grammys in 2013].


© -The Economist, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“NEW YORK

A daring composer defies categories.

“A SNUG one-bedroom flat near Manhattan's Central Park serves as home and studio to Maria Schneider, composer and bandleader. Her sister's abstract oils adorn the walls, and pots and pans hang from the ceiling of a tiny kitchen space that could fit in a cupboard. Her prized possession, a 29-year-old Yamaha upright piano, dominates the living room. When Ms Schneider composes, the idea for a new song can come to her in a flash. Or she can struggle for months to weave together a work worth performing.

‘It can happen just when you're hitting your head against the wall because you can't come up with a solution,’ she says. ‘Then it can happen in the middle of the night when you're … just sitting there and sitting there and sitting there.’

The agony and the eventual ecstasy of Ms Schneider's woodshedding sessions have yielded music that has altered the notion of what a modern jazz band can sound like. When her 19-member Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra appears at New York's Jazz at Lincoln Centre later this month, the audience can expect to hear works that defy categorisation. One moment, the group can be freewheeling and jazzy. A song or two later, it glides with ease through Ravel- or Chopin-like movements. Then a chamber-music-style duet can seize the spotlight while the rest of the musicians sit in silence.

Ms Schneider's daring compositions have helped her to elbow her way onto the list of jazz's finest living composers. In 2012 the influential annual poll of critics in DownBeat, a jazz magazine, bestowed upon Ms Schneider triple-treat status as the genre's best big-band leader, arranger and composer. Those who have knocked on her door requesting commissioned works include the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association and the Danish Radio Orchestra. Among the oddest non-musical requests came from a wine producer in Germany who asked her to select the grapes for a wine that now bears her name - the Reichsrat von Buhl Maria Schneider Jazz Riesling.

Ms Schneider stunned the classical music world in January, when her 2013 recording, Winter Morning Walks, won three Grammy Awards, including one for best contemporary classical composition. The project set verse from a collection by Ted Kooser, a former poet laureate in America, to music. The poems, from "Winter Morning Walks: 100 Post Cards to Jim Harrison", document his reflections on life and nature while he was recovering from cancer treatment.

Ms Schneider and the Iowa-born Mr Kooser are both Midwesterners, and from adjoining states. Like the poet, Ms Schneider has also had cancer. To interpret the verses musically, the composer pinned two dozen of the poems she liked most above her piano and brainstormed melodies. In one, "Walking by Flashlight", she found images and reflections that were less about cancer and more about nature:

Walking by flashlight
at six in the morning
my circle of light on the gravel
swinging side to side, coyote, raccoon,
field mouse, sparrow each watching from darkness this man with the moon on a leash.

Ms Schneider's journey to band leader began in the tiny farm town of Windom, Minnesota. A local music teacher, Evelyn Butler, introduced her to the piano when she was five years old. By the age of eight, she had written her first song.
Becoming an instrumentalist, though, did not seem to be in the stars. She tried her hand at the clarinet, and was a "horrible" violin player. She also struggled as a youngster to play trills on the piano. ‘I'm not a performer,’ Ms Schneider says.
‘That's just not the animal that I am.’

After studying music at the University of Minnesota and the Eastman School of Music, she decided that band leading and composing were her calling. She moved to New York and became an assistant to Gil Evans, who had arranged music for some of Miles Davis's recordings. At the same time, she was seeking ways to create her own voice and vision for an orchestra. Evanescence (1994) showcases her skill at writing gorgeous melodies for horns and shifting moody harmonies.


Ms Schneider also went her own way when she dumped the traditional record labels and signed on with ArtistShare, a New York-based digital-record label that distributes its music only on the internet. A record label usually foots the bill for the recording's cost and takes the lion's share of its profits. Instead, Ms Schneider raises the money from fans in exchange for giving them a behind-the-scenes view of the recording process or a credit as a producer. She made history when a 2004 recording, Concert in the Garden, became the first digital download-only CD to win a Grammy award.

Ms Schneider's first priority is making music that moves her listeners, though attracting more donors for her recordings would help. Winter Morning Walks cost about $200,000 to produce, which is pricey by jazz standards. ‘The only thing I'm concerned about is whether the listeners are brought out of their worries, and if the music reminds them how beautiful life can be,’ Ms Schneider says. ‘It's a tall order.’

Spectacle movies have been a part of all ages and phases of Hollywood film productions. Unfortunately, the music scores written for many of these blockbusters sound as though they should be accompanying Armageddon. Imagine my delight then when I first heard Alex North’s exceptionally beautiful love theme which he composed and orchestrated for the 1960 movie extravaganza, Spartacus.

Such delight was even more enhanced when pianist Bill Evans recorded The Love Theme from Spartacus as part of his 1963 Verve LP Conversations with Myself, an album that is particularly noteworthy for Bill’s ingenious use of multi tracking.

In his definitive biography Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings, Peter Pettinger observes: “A number of the tunes [on Conversations with Myself] started with brief atmospheric introductions, colored by delicate, pointillistic rippling. This was Evans the orchestrator at work, thinking perhaps of the pianissimo flutes, clarinets and harps of Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe. A good example of this was the ruminatory Love Theme from Spartacus.

Forty years later in 2003, similar observations might made about Maria Schneider’s arrangement of North’s compelling and radiant melody which she performed with The Metropole Orchestra Big Band [sans strings] at the Bimhuis in Amsterdam in 2003 and which forms the soundtrack to the following video tribute to Maria and the Metropole Orkest.


Saturday, April 26, 2014

Jammin' with Joey DeFrancesco

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


“Organ-tenor ensembles have been a staple of the Jazz performance legacy for the better part of 40 years.


Pipe organs were actually the first organs available to Jazz artists, Pioneering musicians like Thomas “Fats” Waller used pipe organs in churches, as accompaniment to silent films and of course in ensembles featuring secular music.


It was the introduction of the first electric organ by Laurens Hammond in 1935 and the subsequent development of a speaker containing two rotating baffles by Don Leslie that jump-started the popular interest in the instrument by players in all genres of music.


Of course the most outstanding quality of the Hammond organ was its (relative) portability. Like its predecessor, the theater organ (Developed by Robert Hope-Jones and introduced by the Wurlitzer organization in the early 1900s), there were multiple stops and pedals for the imitation of other instruments and to allow for orchestral voicing of the music.


Jimmy Smith is generally credited with having pieced together all of the elements of the technique inherited from the pipe, theater and electric organ traditions of Jazz and the blues and rhythm and blues influences which are the critical factors in creating a sound which is so accessible it often becomes the doorway by which Jazz fans first discover their love for the music.


Additionally, we probably have Messrs. Waller, Smith, Bill Basie, Milt Buckner, Wild Bill Davis and a host of others to thank for many of the techniques which are now commonplace for keyboard players who work with synthesizers.


Growing up in Philadelphia, right smack in the middle of the Northeast corridor, Joey DeFrancesco was surrounded by this tradition and by the club scene which nutured it. On this his fifth recording for Columbia, Joey pays tribute to this legacy with an all-star, live date captured at the recently opened New York nightclub which takes its name from its famous predecessor, the Five Spot.”
- Al Pryor, insert notes to Joey DeFrancesco: Live at The Five Spot Columbia CD [CK 53805]



Aside from his musical inventiveness and blazing technique, I’ve always felt that other qualities have made Hammond B-3 organist Joey DeFrancesco one of the more admirable members of the current Jazz generation including his amiability, geniality and respect for the Jazz tradition.


Jazz has always been about jam sessions or in the parlance of the music - Jammin.’ In the early years of the music, jam sessions were where you learned your craft. You sought out places to jam, sat in and measured yourself against the skills and ideas of other musicians.


Jam sessions could be competitive, sometimes brutally so and, in this regard, they could be a test of courage. My initiation into the world of jammin’ involved getting up on the stage with a half dozen or so horn players and playing a blistering uptempo version of All The Things You Are for what seemed like an eternity while each hornman took an extended solo. When it was over, my right hand was shaking so bad from playing a continuous cymbal beat that it couldn’t hold a glass of water. I don’t know how musical it was, but I got it done. I guess I cut it because I was allowed to stay on the bandstand to play the next tune.


More often, though, jammin’ is about learning to play with musicians whose style and approach are different if not singular. Experiencing such diversity served to broaden your Jazz vocabulary and helped you learn other ways to express yourself in the music.


Cats like baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, drummer Shelly Manne and bassist Milt Hinton played with anyone and everyone. Swing-era saxophonist Coleman Hawkins employed some of the earliest beboppers in his band because he wanted to learn the “new music” from associating with them. Even The King of Swing, clarinetist Benny Goodman, tried his hand at be-bop for awhile and other Swing Era icons like clarinetist Woody Herman, drummer Gene Krupa and trumpeter Harry James led big bands that fit very nicely into the modern era.


No one on today’s Jazz scene is more into jammin’ with musicians from all eras and styles of Jazz than Joey DeFrancesco. If you have any doubts about this assertion all you need do is check the personnel on the recordings he’s made over the last 15 years or so.


Although I didn’t recognize it as a conscious choice on Joey’s part because I had nothing to compare it to at the time, my first awareness of his inclination to such diversity was Joey’s Live at The Five Spot Columbia CD [CK 53805] on which he appeared with a variety of guest stars including tenor saxophonists Illinois Jacquet, Grover Washington, Jr., Kirk Whalum and Houston Person and one of the icons of the Hammond B-3 organ, “Captain” Jack McDuff.


Since then, Joey’s been in the recorded company of Jimmy Smith, who more than any other musician is responsible for bringing the Hammond B-3 organ into the modern Jazz era, saxophonists Teddy Edwards, George Coleman, and Gary Bartz, guitarists Larry Coryell, Pat Martino, Ron Eschete, Randy Johnson, Jake Langley and Danny Gatton, and drummers Jimmy Cobb, Billy Hart and Jeff Hamilton.


He even formed a super trio with guitarist John McLaughlin and drummer Dennis Chambers and went on a world tour with them - talk about moving your ears in new directions!


For many years, Joey’s has primarily been in the company of guitarist Paul Bollenback and drummer Byron Landham, two marvelous musicians who can adapt their styles to work with any horn player.


In person, Joey’s admiration for his fellow Jazz musicians is almost palpable - he looks like a kid in a toy store who can’t wait for his turn to make a choice.



Friday, April 25, 2014

Revisiting The Big, Brash, Bold Sounds of Johnny Richards


© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


“There has been much talk in recent years about the close relationship between jazz and what is usually called classical music (or sometimes, "serious" music, as if jazz musicians were kidding). They're coming closer and closer together, this talk usually goes. It's getting so you can't tell where one leaves off and the other begins, somebody says — wistfully, as if it were sinful or something to be ashamed of. And then somebody else — me, if I'm part of this familiar conversation — asks what all the sad words are about; why such viewing with alarm; why the dissatisfaction; it's music, isn't it?

Johnny Richards doesn't do much talking about the relationship, close or distant, between jazz and the classical traditions in music. He just does. He composes and arranges, and when he can, conducts. The strongest arguments, one way or the other, are on music paper or in performance.”
- Barry Ulanov, Jazz author and critic

“The two characteristics of Johnny Richards that usually come first to my mind when his name is mentioned or his music is played is fervor and tenacity. … Johnny Richards is a writer who likes to challenge his men and himself through a wide range of sounds and colors and he usually finds the sidemen who can fulfill his designs.”
- Nat Hentoff, liner notes to Wide Range

“Richards always painted with bold strokes, applying his considerable training and knowledge to create a variety of orchestral pictures.”
- Burt Korall, liner notes to My Fair Lady [paraphrased]

Johnny Richards was one of the more progressive-minded arranger of the 1950s and '60s, turning out big, heavily orchestrated scores with a sometimes unabashed use of dissonance and a good feel for Latin rhythms.

Richards was born in Toluca, Mexico in 1911, as Juan Manuel Cascales, to a Spanish father (Juan Cascales y Valero) and a Mexican mother (Maria Celia Arrue AKA Marie Cascales), whose parents were Spanish immigrants to Mexico. He came to the United States with his parents and his three brothers in 1919.

The family lived first in Los AngelesCalifornia and later in San FernandoCalifornia where Johnny, and his brothers attended and graduated from San Fernando High School. In 1930 Richards enrolled at Fullerton College where he received formal training in music.

He started writing film scores, first in London in 1932-1933, and then in Hollywood for the remainder of the decade, as Victor Young’s assistant at Paramount while studying composition with Arnold Schoenberg.

Forming a big band in the 40s, he had trouble finding musicians who could cope with his involved scores, so he gave it up to write for Charlie Barnet and Boyd Raeburn's forward-looking band.

Oddly enough, considering the reputations of both men, Richards' contributions to the Raeburn library were pretty, romantic, woodwind scores such as "Prelude To The Dawn", "Love Tales" and "Man With The Horn".

Hardly a commercial success, Richards was nevertheless a musical, if sometimes misused asset to any employer.
He also arranged a string album for Dizzy Gillespie in 1950, along with recording dates with Sarah Vaughan, Helen Merrill, and Sonny Stitt. His most famous association was with Kenton, with whom he started arranging in 1952. His collaborations with Kenton on the albums Cuban Fire! and West Side Story are outstanding examples of Richards’ work. 

Richards continued to lead his own orchestras in 1956-1960 and 1964-1965, recording for Capitol, Coral, Roulette, and Bethlehem, and co-wrote one of Frank Sinatra’s signature songs, "Young at Heart."

He died in 1968 from complications arising from a brain tumor.

Of his time with Stan Kenton’s orchestra, Michael Sparke has written in his Stan Kenton: This Is An Orchestra!:

"Rendezvous at Sunset (originally titled Evening) reflects the romantic face of Johnny Richards, and is one of the loveliest original ballads in all of jazz. Whatever the mood, Richards' music post-Cuban Fire has substance and symmetry, and nobody wrote more effectively for the French horns within a jazz framework. Towards the end of Richards’ arrangement of I Con­centrate on You the horns rise out of the orchestral timbre in a truly gorgeous surge of sound. (A talent not lost on Kenton when it came time to forming the mellophonium orchestra in 1960.)”

Michael’s book also contains the following observations about Johnny’s writing by three members of the Kenton orchestra.

[Trombonist] Don Reed noted that "Stan liked Johnny Richards. I think he was Stan's favorite arranger, but those scores were so demanding physically on the band, because the trumpets were constantly screeching. Every­body was playing loud all the time, long sustained notes that blared, and the arrangements didn't swing.”

And Phil Gilbert [trumpet] is typically blunt: "Richards was a highly educated musician with great orchestrat­ing skills, but he was also very disturbed and drank heavily. Cuban Fire was his best, and he wrote some nice ballads like The Nearness of You' and The Way You Look Tonight' with no explosions or head-on colli­sions. We did not enjoy his Back to Balboa charts at all. I hated them. Too hard, and to what end? Uniting those tunes with Latin rhythms was no help at all."

On the other hand, Jim Amlotte [trombone] was unexpectedly positive: "I really liked those Latin charts on 'Begin the Beguine,’ 'Out of this World,' and so forth. Johnny Richards is one of my favorite composers, but his music taxed you to the end. To Johnny, nothing was unplayable, and his music was challenging: very, very challenging. Richards put his arrangements together so well. Some guys will say there's too much tension, but this is what I like. Some things are going to swing, and some things aren't, but as long as there's a pulsation, that's enough for me. They don't all have to be Basie-type swing."

There is a published biography on Johnny by Jack Hartley entitled Johnny Richards: The Definitive Bio-Discography [Balboa Books, 1998], although copies of it may be difficult to locate.

Thankfully, Michael Cuscuna and his team have made Johnny’s long-out-of-print recordings available on a three disc Mosaic Select set [MS-017].

The booklet that accompanies the Mosaic Select set has a good detail of information about Johnny and descriptions of his writing some of which is excerpted below.


© -Michael Cuscuna/Mosaic Records, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Recorded from 1955-1966, the Mosaic set is comprised of music from six albums recorded under Johnny’s name: Annotations of the Muses, Wide Range, Experiments in Sound, The Rites of Diablo, My Fair Lady - My Way, and Aqui Se Habla Espanol/English Spoken Here.

In his notes to Annotations of the Muses, John S. Wilson wrote:

“It might seem to be belaboring the obvious to say that what you hear on this record is music.

Yet an essential point of this composition by Johnny Richards is that it is just that — music, without qualifications: not jazz nor what is sometimes called "serious" music (as though this music were always unbearably solemn or no other music could be considered to have any intellectual merit) nor a violation of one by the other.

Annotations of the Muses is a composition which draws on several musical roots. There are jazz elements in it but they appear as natural developments, not the graftings of a desperate plastic surgeon. There is even more evidence of "serious" music but it is used purposefully, gracefully, to make a point rather than an impression.

The unique flavor of this work derives from the skill with which Richards has made use of both jazz and "serious" elements without seeming awkward or ostentatious in his treatment of either one. There is a homogeneity of conception whether the means by which it is expressed are tightly grouped, accented woodwinds with a flavor of Hindemith, or canons and rounds, or a solo trumpet with a steady 4/4 beat.

What Richards has achieved by this blending is a lighthearted vitality, a form of lyricism with guts which could scarcely be brought about by any other integration of instruments or styles. He has, to begin with, a woodwind quintet for which he has written with that mixture of merriment and brooding which seems inherent in woodwinds. But the quintet is simply a starting point for it soon expands into a nonet which plays with a pulsing beat.

That the quintet should provide a foundation and that the nonet should have a moving beat are factors which reflect, as any honest musical composition must, something of the composer. Johnny Richards has run a musical gamut from serious composition to movie music to jazz writing of the wildest stripe. If his past has any connection with his present, it must be assumed that Annotations of the Muses is a synthesis of the more vital elements of all the areas in which he has worked. In this suite he has stripped himself of any extreme attitudes which he may have felt forced or drawn to use in the past — the form for the sake of form which crops up in much serious composition, the emptiness that keeps movie music from intruding on plot-centered sensibilities, or the hair-raising appeal for attention with which he ventured into the jazz world.

But Richards has put this experience to advantageous use. For, in this case, there is certainly form but it is judiciously selected form, useful only insofar as it has pertinent meaning. There is flexibility, that sinewy feeling for modulation which is the essential tool of the composer of film music. And there is the organic appeal of the subtle jazz musician's attack.


This is quietly convincing music which is — in the best sense — unpretentious. It sets out, with directness and honesty, to charm the listener. Because it is counting on charm, any false note, any obvious reaching for effect, would be its undoing. And so it introduces itself politely but in familiar vein with genial five-art counterpoint and, in hostly fashion, settles the listener comfortably before leading him on into some animated, varied and occasionally adventurous musical exposition. There is revealed in this process warmth, logic and a notable absence of condescension in any direction. The charm shines resolutely through.

Burt Korall wrote the insert notes to Aqui Se Habla Espanol/English Spoken Here and offered the following comments about Johnny and his approach to music.

“Today, many streams of musical thought pour into the main flow. The world is smaller; a trip from the familiar to anywhere on the globe, a matter of hours. Because of this, our existence has become far less closeted than in times past. We are increasingly exposed in mass media to the people, pulse and melodies of other lands. The result is the mixing and mingling of diverse heritages, increasingly reflected in music composed and performed, here and abroad.”

The maker of music, Johnny Richards feels, should bring into play expressive structures, regardless of source. With jazz as his base, he has given this concept life, having created a library for his orchestra that is a true reflection of his stance, "...there are so many wonderful sounds and multiple rhythms elsewhere in the world that we...can make use of," he has said. "We can learn from them all. People in other areas swing in so many different ways. Swinging, after all, is not unique to jazz. I've been delighted, for example, to see jazz musicians in the past few years finally trying to swing in 3/4 and 6/8. So many meters, so many tone colors have been in existence for hundreds of years, and it's about time we got around to them."

For Richards, composing and arranging are continuing exploratory and illuminating processes; he moves more deeply into himself and the multiple materials available to him. An optimistic man, he retains great enthusiasm for his work. It remains at the center of his life. He writes as he feels he must, sometimes at great cost. This form of integrity has inspired his musicians; they stay with him, answering his call, whenever he can field an orchestra. Richards' music challenges, sometimes wilts them, but never bores them. Moreover, they are provided freedom to add something of themselves to his compositions.”

In his Postscript to the Mosaic set, Todd Selbert observed:

“Of the five genius big band composers and arrangers who emerged in full bloom in the 1950s — Gil Evans, Shorty Rogers, Gerry Mulligan, Bill Holman and Johnny Richards — Richards is the forgotten one. When Richards is remembered, it is for his works for Stan Kenton and not for the recordings of his own bands. So it is hoped that the recordings at hand — the earliest of which were recorded 50 years ago — help to remedy this neglect. It is inconceivable that music so brilliant has been out of circulation for so long. …

Richards formed a new band in spring 1957 and the recordings herein cover the last and most fertile decade of his abbreviated career. They are a treasure. The music is at turns passionate and fiery, romantic and melancholic and, above all, majestic. One of its characteristics is its wonderfully deep and visceral bottom, achieved not only through the French horn, tuba and baritone saxophone that had been utilized by Evans and Rogers but extended by bass saxophone. Tympani and piccolo are rarely heard in the jazz orchestra, but Richards incorporated them and they added texture and color to his music. He introduced unusual time signatures and authentic Latin and African rhythms to big band jazz. But the key ingredients in Richards' orchestrations are his gorgeous voicings and development of melody through harmonically-sophisticated and sublime counter lines.”

In order to provide a sampling of the rich texture of Johnny Richards’ orchestrations, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles in association with the crackerjack graphics team at CerraJazz LTD and the production facilities at StudioCerra has selected as the audio track to the following video tribute The Ballad of Tappan Zee, a movement from Johnny’s suite saluting the beauty spots of America that is a moving solo vehicle for alto saxophonist Gene Quill.”

[Click on the “X” to close out of the ads should they appear on the video.]